Alethic nihilism is the theory that nothing is true. There is much to gain by taking this radical idea seriously
Truth is a topic philosophers have spent centuries considering. We have asked questions such as: what is the content of the concept of truth? That is, what is it to think of something as true? And what is truth itself? Can we come up with a true and illuminating account of what truth really is? For example, is truth the same thing as matching the facts? How does truth relate to other important philosophical topics, such as knowledge, reasoning and assertion? Those are all good questions, but the question I’d like to focus on is one that has been discussed far less often. As it’s far more fundamental, it deserves close examination. The question is this: do we have good reason in the first place to think that some things are true?
Our ordinary view is along the following lines. Not everything is true. But some things are: some beliefs and assertions, for example. The longest river in Ireland is the Shannon, so anyone who believes that the longest river in Ireland is the Shannon believes something true, and anyone who asserts that the longest river in Ireland is the Shannon asserts something true. Almost everyone holds true beliefs about many things – their name, where they live, what year it is, and a vast array of other topics. And everybody holds some beliefs and makes some assertions, of course, that aren’t true – and some people make a lot of assertions that aren’t true. But the point is that there are lots of true beliefs and assertions, so there are lots of true things. (Probably there are true things that are neither beliefs nor assertions: true hypotheses, for example. But I’ll focus on beliefs and assertions.)
Now that we’ve stated our ordinary view about what is true, let us critically examine it. There are two reasons why this is exciting. First, if it turns out that nothing is true, that is, to put it mildly, a huge conclusion, one that overturns something we constantly suppose. And if it turns out that not only are there true things, but that they are more or less the things we previously thought were true, then that it would enable us to understand the reasons for thinking that there are true things. Thinking that some things are true would no longer be an unquestioned assumption: we would understand why we ought to think that some things are true.
One way to tackle this enquiry would be to take all the things we think are true, and scrutinise them very carefully, one by one, to see whether they really are true. I think my name is ‘David’, but is that belief really true? When people ask me what the longest river in Ireland is, which admittedly isn’t very often, I tell them it is the Shannon, but is that assertion really true? There are, however, so many things that we ordinarily think of as true that trying to examine them one by one would be a foolish way to pursue the project.
A better way is to think about a theory. Let’s start with a very simple one: the theory that nothing whatsoever is true. The theory says there are no true beliefs, no true assertions, no true anythings. Since we usually assume that there are many true things, this theory is in violent conflict with our ordinary beliefs. It’s a radical theory by any standard. But is there anything to be said for it? Does the theory offer any advantages over our ordinary view of the matter?
There is a special problem here for any philosopher pursuing this project. As the philosopher Jamin Asay puts it: ‘The thesis that nothing is true has long been thought to be a self-refuting position not worthy of serious philosophical consideration.’ And if it is possible to show that it is self-refuting, then we have no reason to believe it. If the theory is obviously a non-starter, that would explain why many find it just absurd.
Let me put my cards on the table. I do take seriously the theory that nothing is true. I don’t think it is self-refuting. At the very least, the arguments that seem to show that it is self-refuting don’t work. And I think that, although it’s a radical view, holding that nothing is true does offer us some advantages. In particular, I think it promises to solve some long-standing philosophical problems. These are all delicate and controversial matters, so I can’t put my hand on my heart and say I sincerely believe that nothing is true. But I do sincerely believe that the theory is worth taking seriously, even if philosophers rarely discuss or even mention it. I call the theory ‘alethic nihilism’ – ‘alethic’ from the Greek word for ‘truth’, and nihilism from the Latin word for ‘nothing’. (The British newspaper editor C P Scott is supposed to have said of television: ‘No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.’ Feel free to choose your own name for the theory if you are as linguistically sensitive as Scott.)
Before we can get to examining whether alethic nihilism has any advantages, we need to see whether it can be ruled out straight away. Why might we think that it is self-refuting? One argument is that alethic nihilism implies the denial of absolutely every claim. Suppose someone makes the claim that human activity is the main cause of global heating. They are perfectly correct. What would an alethic nihilist – that is, someone who believes that nothing is true – make of the claim? We can imagine them reasoning as follows: ‘Well, if human activity is the main cause of global heating, then the claim is true. But nothing is true. So human activity isn’t the main cause of global heating.’ The argument is that alethic nihilism leads us to make denials that we are in no position to make, some of which are positively dangerous.
Another argument focuses on the person trying to persuade us that nothing is true. ‘If you are trying to get us to believe alethic nihilism, you must believe it yourself, so you must think alethic nihilism is true. But, if so, then you must think that there is something true – namely, your own theory!’
Saying something that is the case isn’t enough for being true
These arguments are serious threats to alethic nihilism, but I don’t think they teach us that the theory should be rejected. Rather, I think the lesson to take from them is that the theory as it stands is too meagre. To be more defensible, the theory needs to say more. To see how to enrich the theory, let’s examine another aspect of our ordinary thinking about truth. As I pointed out earlier, our ordinary view says that since the longest river in Ireland is the Shannon, anyone who believes that it is, believes something true. That is an example of a wider assumption, which we can sum up like this: something is true if what it says is the case. For example, suppose I believe there is a fly in my soup. If there is a fly in my soup, then I believe something true. Call this the ‘reality-to-truth link’.
As well as the reality-to-truth link, we ordinarily believe in a truth-to-reality link. Take the same belief again. The truth-to-reality link says that if my belief is true, then there is a fly in my soup. More generally, the truth-to-reality link is the belief that, if something is true, then what it says is the case. The links are different because they run in different directions. The reality-to-truth link enables you to infer that your belief is true, based on the existence of the fly. The truth-to-reality link enables you to infer that there is a fly in your soup, based on the truth of your belief.
The reality-to-truth link is the important one here, because both of the arguments against alethic nihilism rest on it. The first argument portrays the alethic nihilist as thinking: ‘If human activity is the main cause of global heating, then the claim that human activity is the main cause of it is true.’ The second one portrays the nihilist as thinking: ‘Nothing is true. So the belief that nothing is true is true.’ Both those are examples of the reality-to-truth link. The lesson for the alethic nihilist is clear. Alethic nihilism would be more defensible if we folded into it the denial of the reality-to-truth link: then those two objections could not get started. Sure, the alethic nihilist should say that people generally believe the reality-to-truth link. But they should then deny the link: saying something that is the case isn’t enough for being true.
We cannot underplay how strange it is to cut the link between truth and reality. To use a different example: we ordinarily assume that there’s a correlation between whether it’s raining and whether my belief that it’s raining is true. Either it’s raining, and my belief is true, or it’s not raining, and my belief is not true. By denying the reality-to-truth link, the alethic nihilist denies correlations such as this. From their perspective, the belief that it’s raining is not true, whatever the weather is doing. There’s nothing the world can do to make the belief true. That represents an enormous departure from our ordinary assumptions about how truth works. So denying the reality-to-truth link makes alethic nihilism even more radical than it was before. But, as we have seen, it also makes it more defensible. […]
Edited bySam Dresser